Giovanni's Light: The Story of a Town Where Time Stopped for Christmasby Phyllis Theroux
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Ryland Falls wasn't paradise, but there was a certain storybook quality about the town that made visitors catch their breath. As in a book, the order of the stories never changed. On December first, the Chamber of Commerce always hung out the "Yuletide Greetings" banners, the plastic Santa Claus went back on the top of the firehouse roof, and grumpy Diane at Elwood's Market started wearing her set of imitation reindeer antlers.
Yet on this particular Christmas, there were signs that the order of things would change. And when it did, the people in Ryland Falls never celebrated Christmas the same way again.
The Christmas spirit is alive and well in this inspiring story about the redeeming power of the imagination and the true nature of compassion.
Howard Norman author of The Haunting of L. Deeply affecting, written with offhand-seeming brilliance and compassion, Giovanni's Light is a Christmas dream of achieved realism. Phyllis Theroux succeeds in plaiting together a philosophy of art with real people's lives in a way that makes her book a small classic.
Thomas Moore author of Care of the Soul Charming and universal, Giovanni's Light is a story of hope and the often forgotten fact that life can change, especially when nature is allowed to play a role.
Benjamin Cheever author of Famous After Death You'll read this in one sitting. And when you've finished, the world will look fresh and new again, the way it used to look. Giovanni's Light is splendid. Read it to yourself. Read it to your children.
Sue Grafton author of P Is for Peril Reading Giovanni's Light is like being transported by magic into one of those miniature villages under an old-fashioned Christmas tree.
Judith Viorst author of Imperfect Control This Christmas, and every Christmas, families all over America should be reading Giovanni's Light. Like It's a Wonderful Life, it offers enduring truths about connection and community. As always, Phyllis Theroux writes with a spare eloquence that speaks directly to the heart. Do I dare call her gentle fable an instant classic? You bet.
The Reverend William Sloane Coffin author of The Heart Is a Little to the Left Giovanni's Light reminds us of the Divine wonder and beauty of ordinary things in the everyday world.
Michael Korda author of Country Matters Giovanni's Light is a charming, lovely story, and the perfect Christmas "stocking stuffer."
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Giovanni woke up and rubbed his beard, which is what he did when he wanted to remember something. Pushing Max like a warm quilt to the foot of the bed, he dressed quickly and walked into the kitchen. It was still dark out, but through the window he could see that the ground was still bare. How strange, he thought. There was always snow on the mountain by December 1. But this year, even though the creek had frozen and the woods were full of frost ferns, the snow had not come.
He lit a lantern and set it on the widow ledge next to his portable radio. He would need to take that with him. The alarm clicked on. "Goood morning," sang out the announcer, "it's five A.M. and going to be another cold one. The temperature..."
Giovanni reached up and turned the radio off. Everything he needed to know about the temperature, he could see in his own breath.
He fed a log into the woodstove to warm up the room and began to fill up an empty box upon the table with supplies. Max's head pressed against his knee and Giovanni looked down at him and smiled.
"You don't want me to forget to put something in for you, do you?"
Reaching down beneath the table, he took an almost empty sack of dog biscuits and tossed it into the box. More dog food for Max was on his mental list of things he needed to buy in town.
Giovanni was the last remaining member of a mountain family that had lived on Old Rag as long as anybody could remember. They were blacksmiths, roofers, handymen, and housecleaners people who left school early and slipped in and out of Ryland Falls to earn a living but always returned to the mountain by nightfall. Giovanni's cabin sat upon land that had been passed down from one generation to another until, finally, no one else was left to inherit it. One by one, they had died or been softened by thoughts of civilization and left.
It was a hard but independent life. There was no electricity, no running water, and no heat or cooking range except for the woodstove. But there was a well behind the house, and a vegetable garden provided Giovanni with most of the food he ate. And whenever he needed something he couldn't make himself, he paid a visit to Ryland Falls' town dump. It always amazed him what people threw away.
Once he'd found an old front door and a barbershop chair that he'd turned into a table he could pump up and down with his foot. The goggle-shaped window above the sink had been a windshield. Most of the tools hanging in the makeshift forge behind the cabin had come from salvaged car parts of high-quality steel thrown out by auto dealers after a recall. But the best, most high-quality thing he had ever found at the town dump was Max.
He had been barely a month old when Giovanni had seen him walking unsteadily toward him over a pile of rubbish a trembling, pitiful-looking puppy with stick-out ribs and sad, licorice-colored eyes. Giovanni was shy around people. But there wasn't a fox, deer, or jackrabbit within a mile of his cabin that he didn't speak to as if it were an old friend. When he saw Max, he knew just what to do. He stood still and waited.
When Max reached Giovanni's side, he was too weak to do anything more than lean against his legs, exhausted. Kneeling down to pat his head, Giovanni examined his rough, tricolor coat. He was probably a German shepherd-retriever mix.
"Hey, little fella," he murmured. "Where's your collar? How'd you get here?" But Giovanni knew the answer to that one. Somebody had abandoned Max at the dump as carelessly as an old suitcase.
Giovanni had been alone for a long time. Though Lucia had died twenty years ago, he could still see her sitting on the porch steps, balancing little Carlo on her knee while she shelled peas for supper. It had been ten years since Carlo had left to join the army, and seven since a pale young officer about Carlo's age had mounted the same porch steps and knocked upon the door to tell Giovanni that his son was dead.
Giovanni had grown too old and taciturn to want to be anybody's husband now. And the rage and grief he had felt over Carlo's death so senseless that for years he couldn't think about it without feeling sharp pains in his heart had finally turned into resignation, the resignation into calm. Sorrow had hollowed out Giovanni like a gourd, and the emptiness inside was not unpleasant. But the way Max leaned against his legs like a last resort turned his mind in a new direction.
Well, Giovanni thought, perhaps it's meant to be. Gently gathering up the puppy in one hand, he unbuttoned his jacket with the other and slipped him inside. Max gave a little shudder and lay quietly against Giovanni's chest. "Never mind," he said, patting Max through his jacket like a baby in a blanket, "you're home now."
From that day on, Max had been Giovanni's constant companion, running just ahead of him as he gathered wood, picked berries, and planted tree seedlings. Giovanni knew how to live off the land better than anyone else around. But some things, such as coffee, kerosene, and the occasional dog biscuit for Max, required money. For that, Giovanni had his Christmas trees.
Growing Christmas trees suited Giovanni's solitary, observant nature. The ground beneath the trees had to be kept constantly cropped to prevent diseases. In the spring and fall, he trimmed up the branches so they would grow into the graceful shapes that people in Ryland Falls wanted. Then, as winter approached, he would walk between fragrant rows of Scotch pine, blue spruce, and Douglas fir and tie ribbons around the ones that were mature enough to cut down.
All last week, Giovanni had worked well into the night cutting, hauling, and loading the trees upon his truck. His back ached and his mind rebelled against the trip that lay ahead, but it was time to go. Picking up the box of provisions, he stepped outside onto the porch and drew a deep breath as if to take the mountain with him in his lungs. Locking the door, he called to Max, "Come on, boy, we're ready."
In truth, Giovanni was never ready to leave the mountain. He loved everything about it how the birds formed a wreath of song around the roof in the early morning, the sound of the melting creek tumbling over the rocks in the spring, the way the wind bent the treetops during a storm. The face of Old Rag was constantly changing its expressions, and Giovanni hated to miss any one of them. But three weeks of camping out in Ryland Falls made it possible for him to live on the mountain the rest of the year.
Walking toward the truck, he mentally ticked off everything that should be loaded on it: army tent, portable woodstove, firewood, cot, bedding. All there. Radio. Yes. Then he remembered something he had left behind. Letting himself back into the cabin, he walked over to his bed and picked up a large, tattered book on the bedside table and tucked it under his arm. He never left it behind. Climbing back into the truck, he put the engine in gear and headed down the mountain.
When Giovanni reached Ryland Falls, the Crimmins Clock Tower had just chimed six o'clock. He drove past the inn, the police station, the library, and several blocks of stores the Whistle Stop Ice Cream Parlour, Workout Wonder Gym, Shear Power Hair Salon, First National Bank. It was always a shock to Giovanni when he returned to civilization.
On the mountain, Giovanni's days were regulated by heat and cold, light and darkness. Off the mountain, these things were taken care of, and the standards of measurement were full and empty, fast and slow. Giovanni gripped the wheel and stared straight ahead. At the far end of Center Street was Elwood's Market. Next to Elwood's was a vacant lot where every year Giovanni sold his trees.
He pulled to a stop. Max jumped out of the truck, did a brief patrol of the lot, then followed Giovanni as he set up camp with a woodsman's efficiency. First he erected the army tent. Next, he put together the woodstove and fit the stovepipe through a flap in the center of the canvas roof. Then he got a fire going and arranged his cot and provisions along the walls. Outside, it was below freezing, but soon the inside of his tent was as warm and cozy as his mountain cabin.
Then Giovanni unloaded his trees, their branches rustling like silk as he pulled them off the truck. Nobody could ask for trees that were fresher or more gracefully shaped, and as he arranged them all by height and kind in orderly rows upon the lot, he began to cheer up. The smell of pine sap, mingled with the wood smoke from his stove, made him feel as if he were back on the mountain.
By seven-thirty, everything was in place. Pulling a wooden chair across the entrance of the tent so the stove would warm his back, he sat down to rest and survey the small mock forest in front of him. Max laid his head upon his knee and looked up at him reproachfully. Giovanni smiled.
"You want to go home, too, don't you? Well, we'll be back by Christmas...maybe sooner."
Giovanni cast his eyes toward the sky and tried to decide whether it had the look of snow. A little snow on the branches always made his trees sell better. But he wasn't worried. Every one of them was a beauty and Giovanni knew he would sell them all.
Meanwhile, in a second-floor apartment above Elwood's Market, a tall young man with rumpled hair stood at the window and looked down at the man and the dog. His pale, appraising eyes took in the whole scene: the woodsman in his rough coat, the light cast by the open stove door upon the inside of the tent, the gentle line of the dog's mouth as he rested his head upon the woodsman's knee. Will Campbell was a painter. Automatically, he noticed these kinds of details and put a frame around them. But the scene did not inspire him to paint. He shivered. He had promised himself that he would come to a decision by Christmas, and Giovanni's trees reminded him that Christmas was almost here.
Copyright © 2002 by Phyllis Theroux
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Meet the Author
Phyllis Theroux is the author of The Book of Eulogies, Nightlights: Bedtime Stories for Parents in the Dark, Peripheral Visions, California and Other States of Grace, and Serefina Under the Circumstances, a children's book. She is also the founder of Nightwriters (www.nightwriters.com), which holds writing seminars in the United States and Europe. She lives in Ashland, Virginia.
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Remember when we had time for our friends and neighbors. Time to just talk and visit, and help each other out. This is the message of Giovannis Light. I loved it. It reminds us of what we are missing in our modern hectic life.